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Fair Sentencing for Youth?

May 22, 2011

Imagine spending your entire life in prison for an action you committed when you were a youth. In California, juvenile defendants can be sentenced to life without possibility of parole (LWOP). Some call it “the other death penalty,” for these defendants will die in prison without ever having the chance to live in society as an adult. California Senate Bill 9 (SB 9) would change this.

A judge would have discretion to resentence the defendant to a sentence with a minimum number of years and the possibility of parole (such as, “twenty five years to life”). The defendant would then, after serving that sentence, have the opportunity to go before the parole board and prove that he or she merits parole.

The Present Law is Unfair

Sentencing youth to life in prison without possibility of parole is unfair and is a flawed social policy for several reasons:

1. LWOP for crimes committed by juveniles discourages rehabilitation by preventing even the opportunity to review the sentences of a person sentenced to life in prison as a child.

2. These defendants, who have no opportunity for release, are often left without access to programs and rehabilitative services while in prison.

3. California has the worst record in the nation for racial disparity in the imposition of life without parole for juveniles. African American youth are sentenced to life without parole at over 18 times the rate of white youth. Hispanic youth are sentenced to life without parole five times more often than white youth.

4. Imposing sentences of life without the possibility of parole provide little or no real deterrent effect on juvenile crime—California’s arrest rate for violent crimes by youth is higher than many other states, including states that do not sentence children to life without parole.

5. Human Rights Watch estimates that 45 percent of youth offenders serving life without parole in California were convicted of murder but were not the ones to actually commit the murder.

6. Juvenile LWOP defendants often were intentionally participating in a felony that unintentionally resulted in murder, and they were often acting under the influence of an adult (who may or may not have received a LWOP sentence himself).

7. Nationally, 59 percent of juveniles sentenced to life without parole are first-time offenders—without a single crime on a juvenile court record. These young offenders are not the worst of the worst offenders.

Is Senate Bill 9 good? Is it good enough?

SB 9 does not automatically grant release to juveniles sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. In order to ever possibly get out of prison, the adult who was sentenced as a youth must: (1) serve 25 years in prison, (2) petition the court, (3) have his or her petition granted, and then (4) persuade a Board of Parole to grant parole—something it does in only 10-15 percent of all cases. Getting paroled requires demonstration of rehabilitation and a detailed plan for re-entry. The possibility of release from prison is slim. But SB 9 is good policy because it is more humane and because it shapes the opportunities provided to these defendants as well as encourages rehabilitation.

Who’s for SB 9?

SB 9 was authored by Senator Yee, with Principal Coauthors Senators Steinberg and Vargas, and Coauthors Assembly Members Fuentes and Lowenthal.
A long list of individuals, politicians, and organizations have publicly voiced support. See

Who’s Against SB 9?

The California District Attorneys Association

To take action go to

For more information, see:

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